Who Is He to Judge? Magisterial authority in the modern world

Although the Second Vatican Council came to a close in December 1965, the exchange of constructive activity and sharp criticisms fostered over its four sessions did not. These interactions spilled out of the council into Catholic publications, universities and parishes in the decades that followed. One important contributor to this massive conversation was the Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner, a theological expert at the council who was involved with a number of its documents.

Father Rahner was aligned with the reform-minded majority at the council and involved with the early drafts of the “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World” (“Gaudium et Spes”), yet he became highly critical of the document in the last year of the council, penning a sharp critique of its penultimate draft. One serious concern was the document’s genre: a pastoral constitution. The genre itself, with its attention to the “signs of the times” and pressing concerns of the day, was not so much the problem. Rather, Father Rahner worried, it was not made clear exactly how the Catholic faithful, who had primarily known councils to define dogmas and to anathematize, were to process this pastoral constitution.

Father Rahner proposes that in order both to “be itself” and to serve a world which stands in great need of counsel, the church can and does issue what he calls instructions. The precise nature of an instruction will be explored in more depth shortly, but suffice it to say that he places “Gaudium et Spes” in this category. To understand an instruction correctly one must avoid two pitfalls.

First, instructions must not be understood as binding universal norms or dogmas. St. John XXIII’s encyclicals, for example, make rather specific demands that do not flow directly from the deposit of faith. Such boldness startled specialists in economics and sociology during St. John XXIII’s time, Father Rahner notes, but it should not be said that he irresponsibly exceeded his “doctrinal competency.” The pope’s job description is not simply to guard the deposit of faith but also to “shepherd” through the pastoral act of instructing.

The second pitfall awaits anyone who reacts too strongly to the first. It is good and healthy to recognize the boundary that distinguishes defined dogmas, which follow directly from the Gospel, from instruction. But one who does so, Father Rahner warns,

...should not straightaway start talking about the possibility of error or of the composers exceeding their competence, etc. (though admittedly even in a conciliar constitution which is precisely not intended to be a definition this is possible).... [W]e should not be too hasty in speaking of the finite nature and the limitation of even the Church’s pronouncements.... It may be that behind it lies the summons of the Spirit in history, that Spirit whose will it is to have both enacted in the Church of today, demands as well as doctrinal statements.

But even 50 years after “Gaudium et Spes,” there are clear signs that the pitfalls about which a troubled Father Rahner prophetically warned loom as large as ever. Especially when it comes to issues that divide Catholics in the United States, there is a discernible tendency to regard church instructions about such issues in the extreme terms of either unassailable de fide principles or the harmless commentary of a naïve church authority that has exceeded the bounds of its expertise.

This tendency is on full display in a slew of comments about Pope Francis’ environmental encyclical, “Laudato Si’.” Maureen Mullarkey, writing for First Things months before the encyclical’s release, makes clear in “Francis and Political Illusion” (1/5/15) that she has no qualms about “conscientious concern for the environment” (a norm), but how exactly to exercise such concern remains an open question. I imagine that Father Rahner would agree with the content of this evaluation, but that it was offered in the mode of pre-emptive damage control speaks volumes about how instructions themselves are regarded. It steers directly into the second pitfall: the evisceration of the instruction’s authority and an implicit rejection of ecclesial competence to speak about such matters in the first place. In Ms. Mullarkey’s case, however, the matter hardly remains implicit. Pope Francis, she states, “is an ideologue and a meddlesome egoist.... Megalomania sends him galloping into geopolitical—and now meteorological—thickets, sacralizing politics and bending theology to premature, intemperate policy endorsements.”

This same questioning of competence was on display during Pope Francis’ recent visit to the United States. On the website Time.com, Paul Gosar, a Catholic Republican Congressman from Arizona, published an article titled “Why I Am Boycotting Pope Francis’s Address to Congress.” Like Ms. Mullarkey, Mr. Gosar questions the pope’s competence to speak on climate change, but in his critique Gosar actually collides with Father Rahner’s first pitfall, which automatically styles papal exhortations on moral matters as binding universal norms. “If the Pope wants to devote his life to fighting climate change,” Mr. Gosar opines, “then he can do so in his personal time. But to promote questionable science as Catholic dogma is ridiculous.” Taken together, Ms. Mullarkey and Mr. Gosar demonstrate that Father Rahner’s concern is hardly a thing of the past. Many Catholics see magisterial teaching either as universal, binding and dogmatic or as uninteresting and duly forgettable.

Of course, the pitfalls Father Rahner described are not a problem for only one group of American Catholics. Some Catholics have dismissed with similar swiftness the magisterium’s concerns about religious liberty. And without equating the two, it is worth noting that there are remarkable similarities between someone of one mind-set who asks, “What gives an old celibate man like St. John Paul II any authority to weigh in on my particular sex life?” and one of the converse mind-set who asks, “Who suddenly made Francis an expert in climatology and economics?”

Neither attitude conforms to the approach Father Rahner advised some 50 years ago when he warned that a pastoral constitution and instructions like it were in danger of being safely ignored. The current state of affairs is not greatly improved from 1973, when Father Rahner made the following remark (of which I cannot help but think Pope Francis would approve):

We are not yet accustomed to the “concrete directives” I have in mind. The average Christian has the false impression that the church must either offer absolutely binding norms in the name of a moral-dogmatic Christianity, or remain quiet. For example, in a consumer society a priest surely cannot say that anyone owning a Mercedes 300 is no longer a Christian. But priests or bishops too must manage to issue an imperative or an initiative to a certain lifestyle. Otherwise, the church finds itself in the situation in which its theoretical principles become always more abstract and their applicability to concrete lives more modest. All this presupposes that, on the one hand, such a directive will be taken seriously and, on the other, not wrongly understood as if it were an absolute norm of moral theology.

An Ecclesiastical Theory of Knowledge

Although Father Rahner was involved in early drafts of “Gaudium et Spes”in 1963, his direct contributions were diminished as the drafting commissions went through a series of reorganizations, during which his enthusiasm for the text began to wane. Though Rahner was not able to attend the meeting in Ariccia in January 1964 at which the main contours of “Gaudium et Spes”as we know it now took shape, he offered to evaluate the results in writing. The fruit of this evaluation was a highly critical 20-page commentary that touched on items ranging from the draft’s sloppy systematic theology to its “barbaric” Latin. This essay, though never published, was widely circulated among the council fathers and ended up having a substantial impact in several respects on the promulgated version of “Gaudium et Spes.”

But one of Father Rahner’s complaints had relatively little impact. This concerned the lack of what he called a “theological gnoseology,” or an ecclesiastical theory of knowledge; this was in fact the first objection he listed in his evaluation. It was also the most detailed, equal in length to a combination of six of his next seven points of criticism. In it, Father Rahner observes that the draft fails to give an account of the basis and authority out of which the church speaks on matters particular to the day and age.

Making clear that much of the text’s presentation of the current human condition and state of the world is “to be praised,” as are many of the church’s concrete solutions contained in the schema, Father Rahner nevertheless warns that the faithful need an account of why the church is speaking on such particular realties and how to classify its proposed remedies. Are they morally binding norms or principles? They do not seem so, he notes, but neither are they mere suggestions. Father Rahner then begins sketching a proposed gnoseology to accompany the schema, stating that the faithful have to respond to concrete situations but cannot always directly deduce precisely what to do from universal moral norms. Such decisions are caught up in their historical particularity. The schema needs to make clear, he insists, the relationship between morally binding universal principles, its own teaching on more particular matters and the final “concretization” that occurs in the actions of individuals.

While some amendments were made to the constitution’s conclusion in light of his remarks, Father Rahner himself deemed the final product to be insufficient. Accordingly, he took matters into his own hands and wrote his own accompanying “theological gnoseology,” which was published within two years of the council’s conclusion and later included in the 10th volume of Theological Investigations as “On the Theological Problems Entailed in a ‘Pastoral Constitution.’”

Father Rahner begins this essay by considering the unique title of “pastoral constitution” that was given to “Gaudium et Spes.” It is “not easy,” he remarks, “to say what a pastoral constitution really is.” The fact that it is one of four constitutions (in contrast to declarations and decrees) promulgated at the council attests to its importance, but how should pastoral be understood? It cannot mean simply “intended for members of the flock,” since such a designation would be superfluous—what document of the church would notbe pastoral? A better meaning, Rahner suggests, is that “pastoral” signifies the council fathers’ wish to shed light on the present situation of the world and issue warnings, admonitions and directives to help people shape their lives. He goes on to classify such issuances under the category of “instructions” (in German, Weisungen).

True to character, Father Rahner gives a lengthy definition of “instruction” chock full of subordinate clauses. But perhaps it is helpful to clarify what an instruction is not. First, it is clear that instructions are not binding laws or enduringly valid dogmas. They are not infallible principles contained in the Gospel, though, importantly, they are certainly supported by such principles. Neither are they norms deduced directly from the principles of the Gospel that have unambiguous binding force and are meant to be applied more directly to concrete situations. Such binding norms, he explains, are not entirely sufficient in and of themselves, because no collection of such norms will ever cover the complexity of particular states of affairs, for which a range of genuinely moral actions can exist even after combining a set of relevant norms.

A Shepherding Church

The particularity of each concrete state of affairs does not mean, however, that the church cannot say anything meaningful to individuals who make decisions within them. The church is not, Father Rahner insists, simply a repository of revealed universal truths; but like the Christ whose body and sacrament it is, the church has the pastoral function of shepherding. Such a task is not limited to general commandments or prescriptions but includes the instructions under discussion here:

If it were not that the Church had the power and the authority to issue such instructions, it would be quite inconceivable how she could apply her pastoral function in the concrete. Laws and commandments taken by themselves would never achieve what has to be achieved and done in the Church.

Political events, cultural shifts and developments in the technology of warfare are just the beginning of phenomena that can demand the response of the church’s prophetic voice, the message of which cannot always be purely deduced from Gospel principles but that stands in accord with them nonetheless. Although deducing a particular action from a set of norms and principles may run into difficulties, the church can certainly offer people counsel in their efforts to discern right actions.

It is worth noting that since the instruction is not derived directly from any universal norm or principle, it likewise lacks the binding force possessed by such a category. If this is the case, then, what gives such an instruction any authority at all? As Father Rahner puts it,

Whence does instruction derive its unique character as having the force of a demand, since this force is manifestly attributed to it (albeit in a different way than in the case of a universal norm, which is binding as a matter of moral duty)? For evidently the instruction is not intended to sink to the level of a mere expression of opinion or of the sort of wish on behalf of the other which imposes no obligation on him whatever.

Father Rahner’s answer is twofold: the authority of an instruction arises out of the nature of the church that issues it and the activity of the Holy Spirit.

Once again, the church cannot satisfactorily be understood simply as a guardian of the deposit of faith. It must, Father Rahner insists, be a “subject” having the pastoral power to guide its members in more concrete ways than those for which simply reiterating binding norms and principles would allow. The church has the duty to “act in and on history,” for such action belongs to its very nature. In fact, he identifies several papal encyclicals, especially those of St. John XXIII, along with the charismatic utterances of St. Catherine of Siena, as instances in which the church has already exercised this duty.

The basis for such action is the work of the Holy Spirit. Father Rahner’s appeal to the Spirit, however, must not be understood as rendering church authorities impervious to mistakes, even sinful ones. The church is, as the “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church” states, “always in need of being purified” (No. 8). Nor should the Spirit be understood as granting the knowledge and summons underlying instructions in sudden and miraculous bursts of insight. That charisms of the Spirit can operate in the church in unspectacular, sober and ordinary ways is no reason to think less of them.

Father Rahner insisted on the importance of instructions for the life of the church, and his defense of the need for them is compelling. “Gaudium et Spes,” with its groundbreaking treatment of thorny, specialized topics within a conciliar document, is an inaugural pastoral constitution worth celebrating.

The risk we run in ignoring this constitution and other instructions like it has two particularly disturbing elements. First, it further marginalizes the third and so-called “forgotten” person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, about whose operation Father Rahner has, I think at least on this matter, a healthy regard. Second, ignoring a category like instruction diminishes the prophetic voice of the church in the public square, transforming it into a voice that can be safely confined to personal and doctrinal matters. Whichever way one leans in the church, such confinement quickly loses its appeal when applied to issues held close to the heart. One of the themes in “Gaudium et Spes,” whose urgency has not diminished since the years following the council, was its insistence on “reading the signs of the times.” Reading these signs, an endeavor in which I think a wide range of Catholics will be keenly interested (if for differing reasons), turns out to be a rather fruitless effort if, in the end, the church cannot say anything authoritative about them.

William Rydberg
1 year 8 months ago
I find it interesting that you use the polymath Fr Rahner SJ as exemplar. As I understood it, for much of his lifetime he was at odds with the highest levels of the Magisterium on a number of issues. One being his understanding of the Council. And yes, it is true that in in 2004, the secretary to the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith declared Rahner to be “an orthodox theologian.” But I do not think that his pov allied with St Pope John Paul II who was involved with writing of the document in question. As well as others during his lifetime. If I were to guess, I would say that the problem had to do with his conception of Authority. That although, he a polymath was privy to many of the discussions around the creation of the Committee document, the Author was actually (in the Catholic sense) the "Mind of Christ", not Karl the Peritus' anymore. But that's my opinion. On "Authority" generally, let me say that not everyone is a practical Catholic. In fact most of the human race is not Catholic at all!. Even confining oneself to the "Faithful", just looking at the Cross tells me a lot about how far one can get things wrong about the Truth, what the "Faithful" can potentially or will do when sufficiently worked up. Finally, the Scriptures are replete with references to things being "spiritually discerned". And just because humans are spirit/body composites, we are still subject to concupiscence and the human desire/drive to prefer our own council-at least in so far as we are under the impression that it is the "good". No matter how unenlightened it may be when looked at spiritually. So keep praying, trust in the Lord and know that God's Word continues in the task of watering the earth (Is 55:10-11)

Don't miss the best from America

Sign up for our Newsletter to get the Jesuit perspective on news, faith and culture.

The latest from america

There are not many moments in our worship when our bodies are not being used to say something about what we believe.
Terrance KleinAugust 23, 2017
The president prefers to continue to campaign and stir up mobs instead of attempting to govern and serve the country.
The EditorsAugust 23, 2017
If a Catholic priest violates his vow of celibacy and fathers a child, he has "a moral obligation to step aside from ministry and provide for the care and needs of the mother and the child," said Boston Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley.
Catholic News ServiceAugust 23, 2017